Emma Thompson sees her new motion picture, a sequel to the 2005 family film “Nanny McPhee,” as basically being about a family on the brink of survival.
“It’s Herculean,” Thompson explains. “There’s poo everywhere, there’s piglets to feed and then sell, they have to get the harvest in but … they just don’t know if they’re going to manage it.”
In “Nanny McPhee Returns,” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Mrs. Isabel Green, a woman whose husband is away at war, leaving her to care for their three children.
“The three kids and their mom have to manage the farm on their own,” Thompson continues. “So they have all those chores to do.”
To make matters worse, Mrs. Green’s city-based niece and nephew come to stay with the family, inciting their own war with the farm-based children. Therefore, Thompson’s Nanny McPhee, a woman with a magical knack for using very unorthodox methods to resolve conflicts, shows up right in the nick of time.
“Nanny McPhee will always be the same,” Thompson says. “No matter where she turns up, she’s always the same. So the things that you love from the first [movie] will still be there. But you also get with this a whole new story, which I think is more interesting than going back to the same family.”
After all, Thompson cannot understand why the children from the first film would ever revert back to their bad behavior. The actress, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie, believes that the children featured in a “Nanny McPhee” movie must always have a very good reason for being naughty.
Not only does Thompson see this new batch of kids’ behavior as understandable and interesting, she thinks that the cast pulled it off perfectly.
“We’ve got five children who are superb in completely different ways,” Thompson explained. “It’s a fantastic array of children.”
Gyllenhaal agrees, calling the movie’s youngest cast members smart and talented actors who never abandoned their own authentic youth.
Gyllenhaal acknowledges that, despite being a family film, “Nanny McPhee Returns” features some complicated scenes that required strong performances from the child-actors.
Thompson says that Gyllenhaal deserves a lot of the credit for making that possible, transforming the set – which could sometimes be quite a wild and unpredictable area – into a very comfortable place for the children.
“She plays a slightly flappy English woman,” Thompson adds. “We associate Maggie with these very cool, funky, edgy movies. It’s really great to see her do something quite this different.”
Although Gyllenhaal acknowledges that her status as a mother to a little girl encouraged her to make a family film, she chose the role of Mrs. Green in “Nanny McPhee Returns” primarily because she identified with the character.
“In every way, Mrs. Green is barely functioning,” says Gyllenhaal, noting that the screenplay depicted the character with plenty of compassion. “Obviously, things are really, really overwhelming for her but I think every mom understands the feeling of ‘Ugh, I just don’t have a second.’ I think that is very common.”
Producer Eric Fellner notes that Thompson had initially suggested Gyllenhaal for the role. The pair had previously worked together in 2006’s “Stranger Than Fiction.” Fellner loved the idea but feared that the American actress would not be interested in joining the “Nanny McPhee Returns” cast.
“We sent her the script and, incredibly, her agent responded and she responded positively and before we knew it … the deal was done,” Fellner explains. “And I defy anyone to criticize her English accent. She sounds absolutely 100 percent.”
Fellner credits Thompson with creating a world that children love to inhabit. He especially enjoys seeing the reaction young moviegoers have to the film. However, his favorite part about the “Nanny McPhee” movies is that they specialize in classic family values.
“It’s nice to occasionally go to a comfortable place where you can have all the excitement that modern cinema can bring but within an environment that you know kids are going to love and actually gives them some kind of moral compass as well,” he explains.
Director Susanna White adds that “Nanny McPhee Returns” features more magic, more animals, more comedy and an even more exciting cast than its predecessor. Supporting actors and cameos include Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ewan McGregor and Ralph Fiennes.
“I think there’s a whole look to the film that’s very different,” White says. “It opens up into a big picture of the English countryside that, if we’ve done it right, makes Sussex feel like ‘The Sound of Music.'”
Fellner hints that audiences may not have seen the last of Nanny McPhee, noting that there are plenty of other opportunities and places the character can inhabit.
“Nanny McPhee Returns” (PG – 108 minutes) opens Friday at movie theaters throughout the Valley. Visit NCM.com for specific showtimes and locations.